The anterior cingulate cortex has been activated by color Stroop tasks, supporting the hypothesis that it is recruited to mediate response selection or allocate attentional resources when confronted with competing information-processing streams. The current study used the newly developed "Counting Stroop" to identify the mediating neural substrate of cognitive interference. The Counting Stroop, a Stroop variant allowing on-line response time measurements while obviating speech, was created because speaking produces head movements that can exceed those tolerated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), preventing the collection of vital performance data. During this task, subjects report by button-press the number of words (1-4) on the screen, regardless of word meaning. Interference trials contain number words that are incongruent with the correct response (e.g., "two" written three times), while neutral trials contain single semantic category common animals (e.g., "bird"). Nine normal right-handed adult volunteers underwent fMRI while performing the Counting Stroop. Group fMRI data revealed significant (P < or = 10(-4) activity in the cognitive division of anterior cingulate cortex when contrasting the interference vs. neutral conditions. On-line performance data showed 1) longer reaction times for interference blocks than for neutral ones, and 2) decreasing reaction times with practice during interference trials (diminished interference effects), indicating that learning occurred. The performance data proved to be a useful guide in analyzing the image data. The relative difference in anterior cingulate activity between the interference and neutral conditions decreased as subjects learned the task. These findings have ramifications for attentional, cognitive interference, learning, and motor control mechanism theories.